For more than a decade, from 1968 to 1982, Barry Ewen worked diligently to help raise the standard of piping in Nova Scotia. His teaching efforts at St. Ann’s Gaelic College, with the Antigonish Legion Pipe Band, and with the Scotia Legion Pipe Band influenced many pipers, some of whom are among the piping teachers in the province today.
James Barry Ewen was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland on October 29th, 1946 to City of Glasgow Police Constable Charles Ewen and his wife, Martha (nee MacLean). As a boy, he attended Garscadden Primary School, Queen Victoria High School, and later David Dale College of Engineering. He apprenticed as a fitter/machinist and, after coming to Canada, worked in recruitment, engineering, pharmaceuticals, teaching, and as a maintenance supervisor. He now lives in Windsor, Ontario with his wife Becky and their two children, Austin and Kendra. He is presently employed with Ford of Canada.
Barry’s piping career started at age 9 in the Knightswood Juveniles Pipe Band. He remembers the excitement he felt when one of the older boys brought his pipes to the chanter lesson and he thought he might get to look at them up close or even give them a blow. As often happens with youngsters, however, Barry’s initial interest was short lived, and he soon stopped attending lessons.
About a year later, piper Jim Moffat was a visitor to the family’s home and he happened to see a practice chanter in the corner of the room. Martha Ewen told him that her son had started and quit, though she thought he still had an interest in learning to play. Moffat offered to take him as a pupil and thereafter, every Tuesday evening, Barry went off to his home for lessons. Before long, he was playing the pipes. Moffat was a piper with PM Andrew Stoddart’s New Lanark Pipe Band and when Barry knew the band’s tunes he joined as well.
Moffat was a very patient teacher who encouraged and nurtured the young musician in his playing. He saw, however, that Barry needed to learn from his own mistakes as well as from the experiences of his teacher. Barry had a 45 rpm recording of a Canadian piper by the name of William Gilmour, who was a top player in the 50’s and 60’s. The recording made the drones seem very loud and Barry concluded that this was the right way to go. A competition was coming up in Lanarkshire with the famous Robert Hardie judging. With great enthusiasm, the boy opened up his drone reeds enough to blast everyone within a mile of him. Arriving at the competition, PM Stoddart informed him that his drones were terrible and that he couldn’t possibly play them in the competition. Barry had to use another boy’s pipes, which were so easy that he overblew the reed and it squeaked and squealed throughout the performance. As one might imagine, Bob Hardie’s comments were not too kind. It was a tough lesson hard learned. After the competition was over, Barry took his pipes to PM Stoddart’s home where they were set up correctly and he played all afternoon.
A short time later, Barry began to go for lessons to Tom Anderson, pipe major of the Renfrew Pipe Band which had the dubious honour of having been runner-up more times than any other Grade I band of the day. PM Anderson was a hard taskmaster, and very strict. He did not easily tolerate mistakes. There was a lot of pressure on Barry to perform well for any mistake he made could well knock the band out of the prize lists. “Nerves got the best of me the night before every competition,” he remembers, “but on the day of the event, it always seemed to work out.” When Anderson left the Renfrew band a few years later, Tom MacPherson took over and Barry was named pipe sergeant at the age of nineteen.
After five years with Renfrew, Barry felt he needed a change and thought it would be a good career move to join the Edinburgh City Police and play in their band. PM Iain MacLeod, however, was not interested, which was one of the biggest disappointments of Barry’s life. As one door closes, another opens, and it was at this time that Barry began to go to Duncan Johnstone for piobaireachd and light music lessons. He started performing with the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band as a guest piper but when word came that the band was to fold he decided to join Muirhead and Sons instead. After only a few weeks with Bob Hardie’s band, however, Barry heard that Invergordon had started up again and he went back up north.
While playing with the Renfrew band, Barry had started going along to some of the amateur piping competitions. He took his share of prizes, including the Scottish Solo Amateur Championship in 1963 and again in 1964. Barry was thrilled to be awarded cups engraved with the names of some of Scotland’s greatest pipers, such as John D. Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, Bob Hardie, John Wilson, and Iain MacFadyen, and to see his own name added to the lists. He entered his first professional competition at the Luss Highland Games at age 20. He arrived late with only two minutes to warm his pipes up resulting in a poor performance. John D. Burgess thought otherwise, however, and commended Barry on his playing. It was the sound of his chanter that did him in on that occasion. “You didn’t need that tape on your F,” Burgess told him. At the Uist and Barra competition, Barry managed to get into the short leet in the Strathspey and Reel event along with PM Angus MacDonald, PM Iain Morrison, John D. Burgess, John MacFadyen and Dugald Ferguson. He didn’t get a prize but thought he had done quite well for a young piper who had just turned 21.
In April of 1968, Barry left Scotland to become Director of Bagpipe Music at St. Ann’s Gaelic College on Cape Breton Island. There were a number of very good local players and he soon shaped them into a competing unit, the Gaelic College Pipe Band.
The first contest he attended in Canada was the Antigonish Highland Games. He was surprised to find that the pipe bands were not graded. Rather, they were grouped according to age as senior and junior bands. “The Maritime bands back then didn’t seem to be concerned with setting chanters,” he recalls. “They were more interested in dress and deportment. In the solo events, the competitors would sit lined up on benches waiting their turns. When their names were called, they would stand up, put the pipes on their shoulders, and begin to play with little or no warm-up or tuning of the drones. One piper in the Professional contest marched continuously around the stage throughout his march, strathspey and reel performance!” The young Scot was not impressed.
That was the first of fourteen years attending the Antigonish Highland Games and over that time Barry watched the standard of performance improve steadily. Competing regularly throughout the Maritimes and occasionally in Ontario, he won almost every professional prize available to him, many of them several times. He was concerned, however, that so many Maritime players dropped out once they reached eighteen due to the junior/senior band system. Working through the Nova Scotia Pipers and Pipe Band Association, and with support primarily from Antigonish delegates, he helped to persuade bands to adopt a graded system. It was not easy. One of his most forceful opponents in this issue, a gentleman representing an all-girls pipe band from Cape Breton, declared that girls needed to leave pipe bands at eighteen so they could meet young men, marry and start families. “Once that sex thing is over”, the gentleman proclaimed loudly, “They can return to their piping and play in the senior bands!”
A second area where Barry was able to influence the NSPPBA was in the formation of an approved panel of judges, something that had been badly needed for many years. “In those days,” Barry remembers, “Pipe bands were given 75 points for piping and 25 for drumming. At one contest, the piping judge gave full marks to the very first pipe band that played, effectively shutting out all the others before he had even heard them play!”
The Gaelic College Pipe Band enjoyed mounting success which made other bands rethink their own positions. The Antigonish Legion brought in Bill Magennis, retired Pipe Major of the 1st Btn. Black Watch of Canada, who was a charismatic man with a good way with kids and Barry watched that band improve rapidly. As the years passed, Bill moved to Ontario (1972) and Barry moved closer to Antigonish. The Legion band went to Ottawa in June of 1974 and asked Barry to come along and help set up the new Sinclair chanters which had arrived the week before the event. It was a very successful weekend, with the band placing 1st in the Grade II Canadian Interprovincial Championship and 2nd in the Canadian Open Championship. On the trip home, the band members asked Barry to become their pipe major and he agreed.
Under Barry’s leadership, the Antigonish Legion Pipe Band enjoyed a continuous string of successes. Competing at the Grade I level in the Maritimes from 1973 to 1976, the band won annually Maritime Championship titles and the title of Grade I Champions Supreme. Competing in Grade II on the national and international stages, the Antigonish band won the Inter-Continental Championship in 1975 and the following year placed fifth at the Cowal Championships, fourth at Edinburgh, and third at the World Pipe Band Championships in Hawick, Scotland. “I think we deserved better at the World’s,” Barry says. “We played and sounded great!” The Antigonish band had been together for ten years but after the World’s, many of its members left to seek employment or educational opportunities away from home and the band split up. It was a great disappointment to Barry who felt they were just beginning to sound and play at a high level.
In 1978 some of the prominent players from across the Maritimes urged him to start a new band and that fall the Atlantic Caledonia Pipe Band was formed with Barry as its pipe major. It entered competition at the Grade II level but funding proved to be a major stumbling block until an offer of sponsorship came from the Scotia Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, of Halifax. This stroke of luck led to a better level of financial security and a change in the name to the Scotia Legion Pipe Band. The Pipe Sergeant was Neil Dickie, a native of Scotland. Other pipers included Ann (Robinson) Gray (Celtic Heritage, ----------), Margaret (MacDonald) Archibald, Alan Fogarty, Robyn (Sutherland) Whitty, Ian MacKinnon, Allan Kenny, Dr. George Fraser, John Grant, Doug Boyd, Jerry Gillis and Scott Williams. The band’s impressive drum corps was under the leadership of former North American champion Ernie Rookard of Saint John, NB and included such well-known players as Neil McKenna, and Mike Steele, with Tom MacIsaac on bass.
The Scotia Legion Pipe Band’s entry into competition at the Grade I level took place at the Pugwash games. The morning before the event, the entire band submitted themselves to hypnotic suggestion at the hands of fellow bandsman Dr. George Fraser, a psychiatrist and one of Canada’s foremost authorities on hypnotism. Barry picks up the story: “Once he put us under, George gave us post hypnotic suggestions such as ‘You will play better than you ever played in your life and it will be your most enjoyable performance ever’, ‘You will be relaxed’, and ‘Barry will be pleased and at the end of the performance he will thank you all for doing such a terrific job’. That day the band did play a terrific performance, the Ontario judges were impressed, and I went along and thanked everybody for doing such an excellent job. While driving home, I realized that I had done exactly what George had suggested, and so had the rest of the band!”
The Scotia Legion Pipe Band was very successful at the Grade I level, despite the many obstacles that constantly presented themselves. Winter driving conditions, for example, played havoc with attendance at rehearsals as members had to travel every Sunday from across the Maritimes to their weekly practice in Truro. Barry became frustrated, and this sowed the seed which eventually led to his move to Ontario.
In 1982 Barry joined the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band of Toronto. At that time, their repertoire included the “My Laggan Love” and “The Mason’s Apron” medleys which won wide acclaim internationally. “The first day time I was out with the band, we had to play the Mason’s Apron medley,” Barry reminisced. “We started off in a crescent shape rather than in regular band formation with me on the right side, Bill Livingstone to my left, John Walsh opposite and the drummers in the middle. This positioning left me in the pipe major’s spot as we burst into the reel and marched out of the crescent into regular band formation. My trouble began when we marched forward into the competition circle. You see, at band practices, we had always rehearsed the medley standing still and I had never marched into the circle from this position. Being in the PM’s spot, I couldn’t see any of the others in the band as they were to my left and behind me. I started off using one stride for every two bars while the rest of the band was taking one stride every bar. Jerry Quigg had a heck of a time marching behind me!”
Barry played with the Frasers for three seasons but a new job and a move to Windsor meant the distance was too great to make it to the Toronto rehearsals so he reluctantly left the band. While in Windsor, he competed in the Toronto Knockout competition and at the Detroit Branch of the OPPBS competition. For a brief period, he also worked with the Windsor Police Pipe Band. At the present time, Barry is not playing with a band and judges infrequently as his job often requires seven-day weeks and shift work. One of his pastimes is keeping in touch with pipers around the world via the Internet and on database he keeps track of his extensive tape collection of almost thirty years of weekly BBC piping programs. He still teaches several players who do well in their competitions and he keeps in touch with pipers around the world via the Internet. Fond memories of his years in Nova Scotia are frequently rekindled by contact with pipers and drummers who still remember the tremendous positive impact he made, one that reverberates throughout the Maritime region to this day.